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Yiddish Theatre

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Has Lionel Bart’s Oliver! stood the test of time?
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Ticket, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of thirty years. They have a son and a daughter in their early twenties – and the family is completed by a Bedlington Terrier puppy called Bertie! E-mail : judi_herman@hotmail.com  

One of the first shows I saw as a very small stage-struck child (even younger than the talented youngsters packing the stage in the current revival!) was the original production of Oliver! And I must have worn out my LP album of the cast recording – to which naturally I sang and danced along.

Lionel Bart’s songs have become standards of course – but more than that, for many they are the music that comes to mind when they think of ‘Dickensian’ or even Victorian London.

It is well-known that Bart could neither read nor write music, but the tunes that came into his head will stick in yours, insistent ‘ear worms’ because they are so catchy. Bart grew up in Stepney, in the heart of the ‘Jewish’ East End, so it’s not surprising that the score of Oliver! ranges from authentic-sounding pastiche of Britain’s home-grown music hall songs of the nineteenth century like Oom Pah Pah! to Fagin’s famous Reviewing the Situation, that has the feel of Yiddish song, with its mournful minor key and nimble dancing notes. It’s our good fortune that he transmuted the music he heard as a child into so many tunes that have stood the test of time.

But has the musical stood the test of time? Judging by the enthusiastic and packed house on a Monday night (and the millions of pounds taken in advanced sales), the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. It’s a real pleasure to be surrounded by folk enjoying a show that gets your toes tapping and makes you want to sing along (luckily for the cast and the rest of the audience, I just about managed to refrain from joining in …).

It’s a wonderfully integrated score. Every tune tells part of the story or illuminates a character and no tune outstays its welcome with endless repeats. And this is a production blessed with terrific interpretations of the numbers and a superb ensemble to put over the chorus numbers with more than enough oomph to fill the stage at Drury Lane. Dickens’ story, set on and below a teeming London where opposites rub uneasily against each other, rich and poor, good and good-hearted and greedy and grasping, works wonderfully with this large cast to bring it to life.

The spectacular opening number, when line upon line of pauper children file on from all corners and levels of the stage to sing of their dreams of Food, Glorious Food gets the show off to a thrilling start, wonderfully choreographed by Adam Cooper, with accompanying orchestrated drumming of eating utensils from the hungry orphans.

The energy doesn’t flag in Rupert Goold’s perfectly-paced production (based on Sam Mendes’ 1994 London production) and as the action shifts to the intimacy of the Workhouse parlour and the courting rituals of Mr Bumble the greedy Beadle and mean Mrs Corney hilariously displayed by Julius d’Silva and Wendy Ferguson in their number I Shall Scream. Bart knows how to pace a show though, so d’Silva gets his chance to chill the mood in the mournful Boy for Sale, leading nicely on to the dark humour of That’s Your Funeral, the ghoulishly gleeful manifesto of Oliver’s new employers the undertakers, that couple from hell, the Sowerberries (excellent and genuinely frightening Julian Bleach and Louise Gold).

Young Oliver himself (Harry Stott , one of three talented lads who share the role, and like the three Artful Dodgers, all voted for by viewers of the Reality TV Show I’d Do Anything, of which more later) seems all the more bold and resourceful for daring to nut nasty Noah the bullying apprentice (convincing David Roberts) and brave the road to London and an uncertain future.  Stott's  voice is not as sweet as some have brought to the part, but a lad this feisty would indeed have a more confident vocal quality. 

Harry Stott is of course just one of the extraordinarily talented young people playing characters right at the heart of the story. For good or ill, young Oliver falls in with The Artful Dodger, the resourceful young thief who gets away with almost anything because of his personable cheek. And you’d forgive young Eric Dibb-Fuller almost anything just to get another encore of Consider Yourself.

And so at last we arrive in Fagin’s den, a subterranean cavern of dubious delights beneath the streets of London. Hung with a dazzling array of brightly coloured pocket handkerchiefs and piled high with other gaudy stolen goods, it’s just one of designer Anthony Ward’s extraordinarily effective constructs that also include a bridge that broods over the action and a vista of London from St Paul’s to the elegant Georgian terraces that are home to Oliver’s kindly saviour Mr Brownlow (played with warmth and dignity by Julian Glover). Here the welcoming interior melts effortlessly into the streets that surround it where the street sellers sing their wares in glorious harmony in Who Will Buy.

Ward’s sets are in complete contrast to Sean Kenny’s stark expressionistic set for the original 1960 production. It works differently, but just as effectively.

For most punters the main event arrives at this point in the story. The posters for the show feature the profile of Rowan Atkinson’s Fagin and most of the audience can hardly wait to see how Jodie Prenger shapes up as Nancy, the streetwalker with the heart of gold and the abusive criminal boyfriend, Bill Sikes (wonderfully scary Burn Gorman) , the part she won against all comers in that TV Reality Show.

In truth for me she seems rather one-dimensional, for all that she’s a fine buxom wench with a big voice. She seems merely to be going through the motions - and the emotions, without finding the complexity of the woman who declares she will love her abuser, however badly he treats her. So when she launches into As Long As He Needs Me, it was hard not to long for the gorgeous rich husky tones of Georgia Brown, who created the role of Nancy in the original production. And her big comic music hall number, Oom Pah Pah, singing the joys of the tavern and the tankard is if anything underpowered, not helped by Cooper’s rather messy ‘show and tell’ choreography, with performers acting out each verse, making it hard to switch focus from the action to the singer. Though Cooper does not put a foot wrong (of any of his cast!) anywhere else …

Atkinson is best known for his comic character Mr Bean and for his rather sharper TV antihero Blackadder. Does he cut the mustard as Fagin? For my money he’s more or less the business. He’s a lovely mover, pointing his show stopping numbers with intelligent precision and some fine crowd-pleasing business, treating his ill-gotten gains as precious playthings. If he seems almost benign at times, that’s how Bart wrote him and you’d have to go back to Dickens for the portrait of the grasping Jew that can make Jewish audiences so uncomfortable.

Some critics have looked for signs that Fagin has paedophile tendencies and been disappointed not to find them in Atkinson’s portrayal. I think this is more a sign of the times we live in – children were so abused in Dickens’ time and he was so intent on making his readers aware of it, that sexual abuse would probably not have been as high on his agenda as on ours. Enough to exploit the children’s nimble little fingers, and Atkinson’s Fagin has no qualms in grooming them as thieves.

Just as I found myself harking back to Georgia Brown’s Nancy (a performer who was incidentally Jewish, although that’s hardly relevant to her portrayal), you could hark back to Ron Moody’s legendary Fagin in that original production and argue that nobody can bring to the part quite what a Jewish performer can. But for now it’s enough to revel in Atkinson’s gleeful portrayal and let yourself be infected with the excitement and pleasure of the rest of the family audience at the whole of this terrific production. It’s just great to see young people and their families thrilling to live theatre – even if it might be a TV reality show that brought them there. And I suspect a whole new generation of young theatregoers will drive their families mad afterwards as they ‘sing alonga Oliver!’

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Cameron Mackintosh presents his triumphant new staging of Lionel Bart’s masterpiece Oliver! at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Music & lyrics by Lionel Bart
Based on the Original production by Sam Mendes
Co-Directed & Choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Directed by Rupert Goold
Lighting design by Paule Constable
Designed by Anthony Ward
Sound by Paul Groothuis

Performance Schedule
Rowan Atkinson will star as Fagin until 18 July 2009. Please note he will be on holiday from Thursday 26 March to Saturday 5 April inclusive.

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Related Links:

  • Read additional reviews by Judi Herman
  • New Depiction of Fagin Revives an Old Stereotype
  • Impresario Cameron Mackintosh: How I got Mr Bean to play Fagin
  • Djalili takes on Fagin

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  • Judi Herman

    Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870)

    Lionel Bart (1930-1999)

    Rowan Atkinson

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